It is now quite clear that what happened in Nigeria in 2015 was not a revolution but a scam of historic proportion. To be more specific, it was, as University of Texas Professor and Punch columnist, Adunni Adelakun, put it, a “tribal victory.” How so?
A core group of politicians and intellectuals from the Northern and Southwestern parts of the country successfully repackaged a former military dictator who had two years earlier been universally reviled as unelectable. A man whose only distinction up to that point was his draconian approach to governance as Head of State in the 1980s as well as his belief that repression and coercion represented an all-purpose solution to all of Nigeria’s problems.
How they were able to successfully re-inflict him on Nigeria and give the rebranded dictator purchase with Nigerians will preoccupy future historians who will extend their inquiry beyond Buhari’s own personal con in declaring himself a born-again democrat.
On the political side, the most recognizable faces of this ethnic coalition were Bola Tinubu and Nasir El-Rufai. On the intellectual side, there was an army of Northern and Southwestern intellectuals and learned folks who strategically but disguisedly lent their persuasive intellects to the cause and obscured its essentially ethnic character.
This ethnic collective then successfully coopted many intellectuals and politicians and youths from all regions and religions of Nigeria into the project, advancing it as a last-ditch effort to wrestle the nation from 16 years of the PDP’s predatory rule, never mind that the emerging coalition was animated and financed by disgruntled PDP members.
The ethnic battalion behind then candidate Muhammadu Buhari manipulated the naïve youths of Nigeria and the opportunism and naivety of intellectuals and politicians from other regions, harvesting their energies into the political effort that ousted Goodluck Jonathan. Their rhetoric of revolution, reclamation, and their fiction of integrity and ethical cleansing found a receptive audience desperate for change and thus willing to overlook the contradictory records of the messengers.
The core of the 2015 coalition remained decidedly ethnic in composition and ideology. The inner circle never believed in changing Nigeria. They only believed in changing its leadership. For the Southwestern elite, it was about getting back in power through the backdoor of a Buhari presidency. For the North, it was obvious: they looked upon Jonathan as a usurper, as the man who had purportedly taken their turn at the presidency. They wanted back in. This was the foundational premise of regime change in 2015. Everything else was a sophisticated marketing gimmick. But it was gimmickry at its most disarming.
Buhari had proclaimed publicly that late dictator Sani Abacha had not stolen any money from Nigeria and has not retracted that claim despite Nigeria taking possession of multiple streams of Abacha’s cash stash. In spite of that, and in spite of presiding over a cesspool of corruption and waste at the defunct Petroleum Trust Fund, the ethnic coalition settled on the theme of integrity as their point of departure for their campaign.
Even Buhari’s record of parochial insularity was magically transformed into a story of redemptive self-reinvention. He had learned from his failed previous effort to secure the presidency on the misguided premise that support from the north alone could deliver it to him, we were told. This presidential run, the ethnic propagandists claimed, was different from previous ones. They claimed that Buhari was cultivating a broad based national coalition, had shed his northern provincialism, and had embraced a cosmopolitan, ecumenical agenda.
And yet the evidence of Buhari’s dangerous, obstinate investment in parochial endeavors and claims was inescapable.
It was Buhari who said an attack on Boko Haram was an attack on the north. It was he who said Boko Haram was fighting injustice and that it was wrong to unleash the military on them while conferring amnesty and patronage on Niger Delta oil militants.
It was Buhari who encouraged Northern Muslims to vote only their kind. It was he who led a delegation of Fulani leaders to former Oyo State Governor Lam Adeshina, asking him “why are your people killing my people?” It was Buhari who declared that he would work for the implementation of Sharia, the Islamic legal system, across Nigeria in disregard of Nigeria’s plural religious heritage.
This was the same Buhari who ruled with an iron fist as military dictator, locking up journalists and critics and presiding over an inept and misguided pseudo-nationalist economic policy that worsened scarcity, drove up inflation, and killed economic ingenuity.
This was the real Buhari. But the ethnic coalition capitalized on disenchantment with Goodluck Jonathan’s corruption-ridden administration to claim otherwise or to cast him as remorseful for his past misdeeds, a wiser old man with a different temperament.
Many Nigerians outside the core ethnic constituencies of the coalition fell for this scam. The youths of Nigeria, betrayed by decades of misrule, of which ironically Buhari was a part, fell even harder. They went all in on the sexy message of change.
Ensconced in power, it did not take long for old, familiar Buhari to reemerge. Within a few months of winning the election, both his ethnic insularity and his governing deficits were on full display.
Even before he was sworn in, he introduced a new, quantified doctrine of 97/5 percent into our political lexicon, indicating that the Igbo, who in his reckoning supplied only five percent of his votes totals in the election, should not expect to be treated in the same way as the regions that gave him “97 percent.” The mathematical fallacy of 97/5 aside, Buhari signaled that he was the same old retired dictator whose only post-retirement claim to fame had been a series of insensitive and downright chauvinistic statements privileging the north and Islam above other regions and religious communities.
More reiterations of Buhari’s provincial insensitivity followed. Asked about the Igbo complaints of marginalization in a televised interview, Buhari screamed, “What do the Igbos want?” and proceeded to patronizingly lecture IPOB Biafra agitators about his role in the civil war and about how, as small boys, they had no understandings of the danger of war.
When Benue was attacked by armed herdsmen resulting in many deaths, instead of mourning with the Benue delegation which visited him in Aso Rock, Buhari paternalistically and insultingly admonished them to go and live in peace with their neighbors. He then followed it up by absolving the armed herdsmen of blame, saying that their grazing routes had been blocked. The coup de gracewas his declaration, repeated in a recent television interview, that more people had been killed in Zamfara than in Benue and Taraba states combined. This was a macabre, self-indicting comparison of questionable veracity and an insulting trivialization of deaths outside his natal Northwest zone.
Buhari’s problem is not merely one of cultural insensitivity but one of a lifelong immersion in the comfort of familiar ethno-religious surroundings and a concomitant aversion to associating, except when duty and ambition required it, with people, ideas, and influences from Nigeria’s other regions.
On the economic front, old Buhari reemerged with a vengeance as though he had unfinished business from his truncated dictatorship. As soon as he took over, he decreed a ban, 1984-style, on the importation of tens of goods and declared that the naira must be defended at all costs, including by imposing restrictions on foreign exchange and raiding reserves to prop up a currency weakened by falling oil prices and the resulting slowdown in the economy.
This was economic stupidity underwritten by Buhari’s old 1980s brand of economic nationalism, which sees the economy as yet another realm of national life to be tightly controlled, disciplined, and leveraged for national pride. In this backward, outmoded economic thinking, it did not matter that such a policy of tight controls in a monoculture economy is usually the fastest route to a recession. Predictably, Buhari took an admittedly weak economy into a severe, prolonged recession, with double digit inflation, 11 millions jobs lost, and thousands of bankrupt businesses as the outcome.
He had promised to never pay subsidy on petrol but to fix the refineries to provide access to cheap and abundant fuel. He reneged on that promise. Instead, he increased fuel price by about 70 percent and yet his administration now pays more in subsidy than the Jonathan administration ever paid when fuel sold for 87 naira a liter. By what mathematical logic is this subsidy figure possible when crude prices have tumbled? We are told that somehow, between 2015 and 2018, Nigeria’s fuel consumption jumped from about 9 million metric tons to about 15 million metric tons! When challenged to account for this abracadabra, the Buharists’ answer consist of two words: Next level.
Other promises made during the grand ethnic deception of 2014/2015 lay in ruins, disowned and disavowed by the president and his henchmen.
We are told that the Federal Inland Revenue Service now generates more than 5 naira trillion in revenue, and that the Customs for its part adds several more trillions to the federal treasury. However, in 2018, despite Nigeria making about 12 trillion naira from crude oil sales, at least 7 trillion from taxes and duties, and an undisclosed amount from non-oil exports, the country still borrowed 1.6 trillion naira to support a 2018 budget of N9.12 trillion naira!
This arithmetic sleight of hand is the latest evidence of the gargantuan corruption proliferating in Buhari’s administration. The difference is that much of this corruption occurs through the legal appropriations process.
But that’s not to say that it’s the only form of corruption. Buhari has not only tolerated graft, he even wrote to the national assembly in the case of his ex-SGF Babachir Lawal to argue his exoneration only to be trumped and shamed by the overwhelming evidence against the man. Although relieved of his position, Babachir has yet to be prosecuted in accordance with the report of the National Assembly panel that investigated his shady dealings. In fact, he continues to work informally for the president, boasting recently that he has unfettered access to the Buhari and is helping his reelection campaign.
Buhari superintended and approved the reinstatement of pension fugitive, Abdulrasheed Maina, and has failed to order and investigation into corruption allegations against his chief of staff, his army chief, and his minister of internal affairs — the last two accusations involving the acquisitions of properties overseas.
These are all evidence of the old Buhari reasserting himself and refusing to act according to the script written for him by the 2015 ethnic coalition. The selective morality, the exoneration of corrupt loyal allies, the bigotry and parochialism, the economic illiteracy, the absence of intellectual curiosity, the malicious insensitivity to Nigeria’s complex ethnoreligious mix, and the lack of a national frame of sociopolitical frame of reference. All these tendencies never went away. They were cleverly disguised behind the rhetoric of change deployed to harness the nervous, desperate energies of unsuspecting citizens in 2015.
This is a rather circuitous way of saying that Buhari’s ethnic coalition got away with arguably the biggest political scam in Nigeria’s history, managing to recruit many unsuspecting Nigerians into what they knew to be an ethnic agenda to capture power.
I was one of those who almost believed their pitch. I maintained a studious, skeptical neutrality until the last few weeks before the election of 2015, having previously declared that I could not support the profligate and weak administration of Jonathan for another term and that I had too many concerns about Buhari, based on his history. I interrogated the rhetoric of the Buhari coalition and pointed out the incongruity between it and Buhari’s own record, his history.
Then, when the election was weeks away, some of my social media followers urged me to get off the fence and take a stance because, in their words, that election was too important to be neutral.
I am ashamed to say that I allowed myself to be persuaded by these pleadings and my own emotional, a tad irrational, desire for Nigeria to chart a new course away from that path it was on. In this emotional state, I stated that as a diaspora Nigerian I did not have a vote but that if I could vote I would hold my nose and vote for Buhari, but only as a gamble for change since there was nothing in the man’s record to inspire confidence.
Mine was a tepid, reluctant, and half-hearted endorsement if you could call it that. It was a non-endorsement endorsement. But it still was a public declaration of reluctant hypothetical support.
Even for this weak, late, and qualified acceptance of a deeply flawed candidate, I am now ashamed and feel a need to apologize to my inner, skeptical self, and to my compatriots who are now groaning under the jackboot of the resurgent dictator.
I should have maintained my neutrality. As a historian and as someone who had written on Buhari’s extensive baggage prior to 2015, I should have known that it was almost impossible for an old man to leave his checkered past behind and reinvent himself in both temperament and capacity. I should have known that, as the popular cliché says, the past is usually a prologue to what to expect, what is to come.
In shedding my usual skepticism and critical distance, I became one of those who unwittingly joined and bolstered what has now unraveled to everyone’s notice: an ethnic coalition that produced an ethnic victory, leading to disillusionment among those who were coopted, seduced, or otherwise tricked into believing in the genuineness of the change movement.
I now know that Jonathan was not ousted for being incompetent, weak, or corrupt but for losing the support of Tinubu and the Southwestern political elite who consider him their leader. He lost the presidency because the North always regarded him as a usurper who was enjoying a presidential mandate stolen from them. When these two forces converged, Jonathan could not survive the resulting onslaught. Support from the countervailing ethnic constituencies of the Southeast and South-South was simply not enough to keep him in power. That is the story of 2015, stripped of the pretentious rhetorical nonsense.
Many of those who did not join the coalition for ethnic reasons have since deserted it. Others who remain in the camp have replaced their initial aspirations with opportunistic self-interest. This latter group is small, however. What remains of the 2015 ethnic coalition is largely the original ethnic nucleus of Southwestern and Northern elites — political and intellectual — united only by their thirst for power and its perks.
As for me, the lesson has been internalized for future referencing. I was never a Buharist in the traditional sense but I should have done more to puncture the case for him in 2014/15. More importantly, I should never have yielded to pressure to abandon my neutrality in favor of an endorsement of Buhari, however qualified and half-hearted that endorsement may have been.
I am sorry.
Professor Ochonu can be reached at [email protected]